I confess: I’ve taken pride in food I’ve gotten my kids to eat. When I recognized, in my daughter, my fondness for cheese, I took it to the limit. She’ll bite at Bucheron, but she tapped at a second smear of Teleggio. My son craved spicy stuff since the womb –the wife regularly had me running for Thai. At age four he sucked down bowls of salsa at our local Mexican place. Then, all of the sudden, he didn’t. I couldn’t figure what went wrong. My daughter caught on; it was a chorus of complaints about stuff being too “spicy.” By spicy they don’t mean hot, but bold. I took it personally. Then they started in with wanting the same dishes over and over again. Initially unbearable, but I’ve come around.
The first thing I learned to cook was a pan of popovers. My dad thought he was cute to teach me. He’d shoo me off to make them Saturday mornings, and then read the paper in peace. I knew his motives but didn’t mind. Nice story, right? The point is, it paid off.
At some point in our relationship, I discovered that the wife and I share an affection for popovers. It was nice knowing of at least one thing I can do for her –say to repent for referring to her as “the wife” in print. In turn, she taught me to truly appreciate popovers. For me they had been mostly amusing, a memento. She opened my eyes to the obsession. She shared her theory of condiment selection and efficient plan of attack. Always in the right as she informs me I stink at stopping to smell the roses, she’s absolutely pinned the point down with popovers. Never have I enjoyed them more. Last season, scandalized at Renaissance Festival stands’ inadequate preparation, despite perpetually long lines, she still shared when she finally got one. It took two days to get it, I think. No exaggeration. Maybe hysteria, inspired by the scarcity, made it the best I’ve ever eaten, but probably it was the way she handed it to me.
The moral is that similar pieces from our pasts combined to forge a shared experience. That’s not to say that bonds can’t be forged over fresh encounters with food, just that foods that are intimately understood provide a powerful hook.
It doesn’t always work this way. Fresh out of culinary school, I once assumed I could do Stroganoff at least as well as the one she grew up eating. While mine was technically perfect (don’t mind saying so myself), it missed the point (which was predictably frustrating for me).
Eventually though, this helped me understand how memories ooze from the idiosyncrasies of a given family recipe. These dishes have been enjoyed at length, and often enough, for the eater to have an appreciation of every wrinkle: the crispy corner there, the browned bit, the aroma of some specific ingredient. There are expectations. Where a fancy meal out impresses with finesse and novelty, under dimmed bulbs in a fleeting time frame, the old-familiars cut to the core and linger there in natural light.
This might explain why one’ll spout about a crafty cocktail the other evening, while the solid cup of coffee this morning is too sacred to spill even a single word. My kids sometimes suppose they want a sip of said coffee, but in the end it’s always too “spicy.” I can’t recall ever having shared any cocktail (just imagine the shiver) but my daughter will sample beer without hesitation -troubling though not unexpected. She draws the line at Imperial Porter.